Season of the West

In the last 25 years, the visibility of the art world has undergone tremendous changes -- upheavals, if you will.

For a variety of reasons that range from improvements in mass communication to changes in art education, global artistic innovations are now communicated almost instantaneously. This expedience has led to a riot of competing contemporary styles that run the gamut from neo-traditionalism to conceptualism, and they're all being promoted simultaneously. This stylistic state of affairs has come to be called pluralism. One benefit of stylistic pluralism is the promotion of artists from underrepresented groups, notably women and ethnic and racial minority artists. This is referred to as diversity.

At the same time that pluralism and diversity were taking hold, certain longstanding values in the visual arts, such as excellence and beauty, were being attacked as reactionary. And the champions of the excellent and the beautiful, called connoisseurs, have been accused of acting as elitists, or worse.

So, in a world where anything goes but the finest, what would a curator do?

For Sally Perisho, the director of the Center for the Visual Arts, which is associated with Metropolitan State College of Denver, the answer has been to walk a fine line through these ideological minefields.

On one hand, more than any other local curator, Perisho has embraced pluralism and been an advocate for diversity. On the other, she's a classically trained art historian and a genuine connoisseur. The current exhibit, The West: New Ways/Old Visions, makes this synthesis seem so right. Perisho has included a wide array of styles and mediums by accomplished artists from diverse backgrounds, most of them local. The resulting show is gorgeous, making the Center for the Visual Arts look and feel like a small museum, which, in a sense, it is. "This is the kind of show that the community needs to see," she says. "There are many artists in the region who continue to do Western work, and it's important for people to see that Western art is more than Remington and Russell."

She scheduled it to coincide with the National Western Stock Show, but admits that it's unlikely any attendees at the annual event will find their way down to the CVA. It is the third time Perisho has organized an exhibit with a Western theme at the CVA. "They're my favorite kind of shows to put together," she says. "But, unfortunately, it doesn't work to do one every year."

As we enter the CVA, the small front gallery has been installed with five major paintings by Manitou Springs artist Sushe Felix, all completed in the last two years. Felix is well-known, and her work has been included in a number of significant collections, like those at the Denver Art Museum and at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center.

A courageous painter, Felix hasn't settled on a signature mode. Instead, she has followed a bold stylistic progression since coming onto the Denver scene in the mid-1980s. She began with neo-expressionism, went on briefly to traditional representation, then fantasy-based figuration, and finally settled on the landscape of the Southwest.

The paintings in this show represent her ruminations on transcendentalism in landscape painting, especially the sort that flourished in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s. She is interested in the art history of the region and has studied the work of a number of transcendental artists, including Agnes Pelton and Raymond Jonson. The effect is easy to see in her paintings. Just like her mentors, Felix uses crisp, hard edges to contain her forms.

Straight lines and rectangular shapes dominate "Red Sky," an acrylic on board from 1998. A blazing orange sun in the center right of the horizontal panel floats in a red sky above a landscape made up of mountains, trees and subterranean molten magma. Though the landscape is completely abstract, the placement of the elements and the horizontal shape refer back to the scenery. The fiery palette and the jagged shape of the rocks locate the scene somewhere in the West.

Opposite the Felix paintings are four color photographs by Denver artist and Colorado Historical Society photo archivist Eric Paddock (see "Negative Thinking," page 38). These are straightforward shots of small buildings around the state. In "Leadville, Colorado," a 1998 chromogenic color photo from Paddock's "Cultural Shrines" series, a small red clapboard house is adorned with what could be called regional icons -- crossed skis, crossed snowshoes and a wagon wheel. In the yard, just for good measure, there's an old ore car and a wagon. Another shot is less picturesque: "Aurora, Colorado," also a 1998 chromogenic color photograph, focuses on suburban sprawl; in the center, a tacky house is under construction.

The rough mix of the ideal West in the Felix paintings and the real West in the Paddock photos is something Perisho aimed for, but it's only one of many dualities she has set up throughout the show. Proceeding into the large rooms in the back of the center, viewers come upon "Mountainscape: Spill," a 1999 floor sculpture by Colorado Springs-based artist Louis Cicotello. The piece is about pollution and includes an oozing "spill" made of laminated wood coming out of a "mountain" made of coal.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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